The Editorial Process and Philosophy Behind Mission: Impossible – Fallout
- The editorial process of converting 35mm anamorphic film to DNxHR LB UHD in true 24 fps.
- Cutting 70 hours of footage down to 7+ minutes! (And other seemingly “impossible” tasks.)
- The organizational process of working with a 10-person post-production team.
- When you’re making a movie that you want millions of people to enjoy, don’t be precious: if it doesn’t serve the story, it doesn’t stay in the movie.
- Three pieces of advice and three book recommendations for every editor aspiring to work in Hollywood.
In a meta, life-imitating-art way, Mission: Impossible is not only the title of the hit movie series, it also describes the challenges of getting a big-ticket blockbuster from script to screen.
Ethan Hunt, the protagonist of the uber-successful franchise, is a badass extraordinaire by anyone’s measure. And Tom Cruise, who has embodied Hunt since 1996, has demonstrated some serious badassery of his own along the way. He’s the ultimate pro, both in front of and behind the camera, always raising the bar when it comes to thrilling an audience.
So, if you want to work with guys like that, do you have to work like them, too? Editor Eddie Hamilton A.C.E., returning for his second Mission: Impossible film, helps answer that question with some seriously badass insights and advice.
Eddie Hamilton never attended film school. Rather, he began his career as a runner in a post facility in the 1990s where he made it his business to learn everything he could about how to edit from both an operational and storytelling standpoint. Full and uncompromising immersion, the kind that keeps you at work late into the night and on the weekends, out of choice.
As a result, he’s gone on to cut some of Hollywood’s biggest movies, including X-Men: First Class, the Kick Ass movies, and the Kingsman films, before working with director Chris McQuarrie on the fifth Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation.
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Chris McQuarrie struck gold early in his career, earning his first Oscar and BAFTA for his original screenplay for The Usual Suspects and has now directed three Tom Cruise films (the two Mission: Impossible films and Jack Reacher).
Chris asked Eddie back for Mission: Impossible – Fallout because, when you need an editor who is at the top of the game both in terms of storytelling and high-stakes production logistics, you’re looking at a pretty elite group.
A film with a $150 million budget boasts some serious tech, especially with releases in both IMAX and 3D.
The film cameras used were the Arriflex 235 and Panavision Panaflex Millennium XL2. According to Eddie, “The majority of the movie was shot on 35mm anamorphic, which was scanned to DPX files on a really cool scanner called a Scanity that does 16 frames a second at 4K. Then, everything was transcoded at Pinewood Post to Avid DNxHR LB ultra high-definition media files at 2160p, all running at true 24fps. It allowed me to work at ultra high-def throughout the entire process.”
They digitized all the negatives immediately after shooting, which was then stored on a huge server run by Fluent Image in London, so that they could send files quickly to the various entities who needed them: visual effects, color grading, 3D conversion, etc.
Eddie is one of the few Hollywood editors cutting with ultra-HD offline media. As we learned in our deep dive into the workflows of last year’s Oscar nominees, most editors are still cutting their films offline at 1080p resolution.
Related: Choosing the right codec.
The most important part of managing a film of this magnitude is organization, and Eddie’s team is serious about it. Some of the team worked with him on Rogue Nation, and some came from his previous project, Kingsman – The Golden Circle, so they were already mindful of his high standards.
The M:I crew was composed of two first assistants, two second assistants, a trainee, two visual effects editors, a music editor, and later a 3D editor. The assistants made sure that the cutting room was properly set up before actual footage started to come in, and tested the workflow processes. They requested test footage from the cameras to ensure that the metadata would translate across the whole process.
That step is absolutely vital, no matter whether you’re editing a Hollywood blockbuster or a reality TV show. Always always always test the workflow before you begin shooting. The lead VFX editor, Ben Mills, was “the mastermind of a rock-solid data and color pipeline with Double Negative, the primary VFX house,” Eddie says.
Once dailies start to come in, he has the assistants prepare the bins so he can get right to work in order to be able to advise Chris if there’s anything problematic or missing as soon as possible. Getting additional coverage or reshoots is much less difficult if they can be done when the set is still intact.
Eddie has a straightforward numerical bin folder structure for the various tasks (cutting copy, scene bins, VFX, music, sound effects and so on), and in the scene bins he makes subfolders for the scenes from 1-20, 21-40, and so on. “One of my assistants on Rogue Nation added the slate letters from the take to the scene numbers so it was easy to find the slate numbers, as well. And then I like to add a brief description of the scene, which makes it easier yet. “
Excellent organization is important to Eddie for a number of reasons. First, there’s the sheer volume of material. Then, there’s the ease of sharing work with team members and managing turnovers to different departments.
But perhaps most importantly, Eddie wants to be able to address Chris’s requests quickly.
“For example, the assistants break down all the dialog scenes in a very detailed way, and I have massive line strings where I have all the line readings for each line in the script broken down by wides and mediums and overs and tights. That way, when Chris asks me to show him the options for the lines, I can skim through, show him the shot sizes, and we can audition the various readings quickly, which means we can make fast progress.”
One might imagine that an editor of Eddie’s caliber could argue for his vision of a cut, but actually, it’s quite the opposite. “I’m not at all precious about any of my work. I sketch out the scenes, and if Chris doesn’t like it, I try something different straight away. I try everything, always with the best interest of the film at heart. It’s one of the strengths of editing digitally.”
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In the previous M:I films, Cruise has performed some hair-raising stunts, from clinging onto the side of a flying airplane, to holding his breath underwater for six minutes, to hanging off of the tallest skyscraper on the planet.
In Fallout, he outdoes himself, performing a HALO (high altitude low opening) jump (shot on a Red Weapon 6K camera strapped to the cameraman’s head).
They also shot a harrowing helicopter chase sequence in which he pilots his helicopter.
The helicopter sequence was shot on Panavision DXL 8K digital cameras mainly because, as Eddie points out, “they could run for much longer. They would start the cameras and then the helicopters would take off. They’d get in position and perform the stunts, and then fly back to refuel after 40 minutes, at which point they would change the magazines on the cameras.”
When you consider that Cruise is putting his life on the line for the sake of verisimilitude (yes, those looks of fear on his face are very much the real deal), you realize that the responsibility to honor his efforts in the finished film is considerable. And Eddie’s approach to that task is every bit as calculated, single-minded, and dedicated as Cruise’s and the stunt team’s.
The helicopter sequence is one of Eddie’s proudest achievements. There are thirteen helicopters in the production, with three of them in breathtakingly close proximity to one another. Special camera mounts were fabricated to focus on Cruise, and watching him perform a barrel roll over a waterfall in New Zealand is, as Chris says in the behind-the-scenes film, “very upsetting,” indeed.
Eddie traveled with the crew to New Zealand for the six weeks of filming it took to capture the footage for this sequence. In the nearby house in Queenstown, where Eddie was working with his assistant Christopher Frith, Pinewood Post set up a satellite digital lab to transcode the dailies so the editors could work in tandem with the production.
“They used many cameras, and even though there was a lot of footage at the takeoff and landing stages—which wasn’t intended to be used in the film—I still watched it all, just in case. I always want to make sure there aren’t any nuggets of gold hiding in the dailies,” Eddie says.
Just as Cruise spent over 2,000 hours at Airbus learning how to fly the helicopter at an expert level, Eddie spent more weeks and hours than he can count to cull through the approximately 70 hours of footage that would end up as a 7.5-minute sequence in the finished film.
“It was an extremely long process of whittling down those 70 hours to about 12 hours. Then to 4 hours; then to 2.5 hours; then to 1 hour. Then to 30 minutes and then to 20 minutes.
“I have a thoroughness gene, I suppose, and I want to know the very best options in terms of performance with Tom, visual energy, choreography, composition, and story—a lot happens in those 7+ minutes, and it’s vital to get the story and the beats of the action right. But it was amazing to watch, and when you’ve climbed that footage mountain, ever so slowly, getting to the mountaintop can be very rewarding.”
Eddie still had the rest of the film to attend to during the subsequent process of refining that sequence, which meant that he would return to the helicopter footage in his “spare” time.
“Especially if I was traveling. When I was flying back from New Zealand to London, I just sat on the plane with my laptop and a 4TB hard drive with the footage on it. I was watching it constantly on the plane, making selects. Then I would watch it in the car as I was going to and from the studio back in England.” Don’t worry—someone else was driving.
Eddie also spent several weeks on the military base in Abu Dhabi for the HALO skydive shoot, where he was able to maximize time with Chris—because they were only shooting for three minutes at sunset each day—and then worked from the stage at the Warner Bros. Leavesden Film Studios in northwest London. During complex setups, Chris was available to sit with Eddie for a couple of hours, always making the most of every available moment.
A Seriously Tight Schedule
If you talk to an editor on almost any project, the one constant is that there’s never quite enough time. And even on a project of this magnitude, with a huge budget, the schedule was intensely tight.
For one thing, Tom Cruise actually did have a stunt-related accident, shattering his ankle as he leaped from one building to another, which occurred roughly two-thirds of the way through the 159-day schedule and necessitated a three-month hiatus in shooting for his recovery.
The movie’s deadline, however, remained the same. What that meant to editorial was that during the break in filming, Eddie and Chris were able to work very intensely with what had been shot up until that point, and work on refinements to the script and shooting strategies for when filming recommenced.
Then, to add just that extra little pinch of pressure, the first friends-and-family screening of the entire film was scheduled for four days after shooting wrapped—with subsequent screenings scheduled every two weeks thereafter. You might call it the editing equivalent of jumping out of an airplane at 25,000 feet and nailing your target.
When all filming was completed, the team moved to a space in Soho, which made it simpler for Chris and Eddie to get to all the different post-production houses. The cutting room was walking distance from Double Negative, as well as from De Lane Lea, where they did the sound post, and Molinare, who did the color correction for the DI.
They were also turning “reasonably” locked sequences over to D-Neg’s sister company, Prime Focus, to begin the laborious 3D conversion process even as they were still cutting the film as a whole.
According to Eddie, the conversion is “astonishing,” which is good news for 3D enthusiasts. “There’s a lot of information about the depth of certain objects in the VFX shots that can easily be communicated for the conversion,” he explains. “The depth in the helicopter sequence in particular really conveys a sense of speed and danger.”
Considering how many post-production balls were in the air and the constant deadlines for screenings, the entire editorial crew was working flat out. In order to avoid burnout, some of the assistants worked on staggered schedules. But despite this pressure, Eddie considers editing to be “the best job in the world,” and takes what he does extremely seriously—while maintaining an essential sense of humor to keep the crew’s spirits up, and nibbling chocolate when an energy boost is needed.
“I think the trick to staying calm under pressure is never to be surprised by anything that happens. Every day, interesting developments occur and your job is to manage the situation calmly and professionally.”
A movie like this is crewed by the most accomplished professionals, all of whom trust one another with, well, their lives in the case of the stunt pros. Similarly, the editorial team is trusted to deliver a movie that makes the studio’s enormous investment pay off. Maybe it’s not life and death, strictly speaking, but at times it feels like it.
Chris put his trust in Eddie throughout the project, relying on him to let Chris know if there were any coverage or technical problems with the footage. It’s part of the reason why it was so essential for him to be on the set at critical points in the shoot.
And the mutual respect and trust Eddie and Chris share is born of the relentless desire to serve the story and the audience. “Chris is brilliant at editing,” Eddie says. “And, like me, he’s not precious about anything. Our rule is, if it can go, it should go. We never indulge ourselves. Everything has to earn its place in the movie.”
In fact, they’re so focused on making the film as tight as possible that they do extensive test screenings to see how the cut plays with audiences of both professional colleagues and non-industry viewers.
“We listen to feedback very closely,” Eddie says. “I also like to watch the audience as they view the film to see how they’re reacting—are they on edge where they should be, are they understanding the plot points and relaxing into the film, are they laughing when there’s a moment of comic relief, and does the emotion have a chance to properly land?
“Sometimes adjusting an edit slightly can be enough to make a beat hit better. In other cases, you might need to cut a whole sequence to improve the pace.“
Tom Cruise is, no surprise, seriously involved in the editorial process, talking with Chris on a daily basis and getting the latest revisions. “He knows all the footage,” Eddie says. “He watches all the test screenings and reads the cards from the participants. He’s world class at his job as both an actor and producer.”
Seriously Good Advice
Eddie has a strong commitment not just to his career, but also to the overall craft of editing. If, as Malcolm Gladwell suggests, mastery of something takes 10,000 hours, Eddie calculates that he’s probably spent about 50-60,000 hours working on Avid—and makes it his business to learn new things each day.
He’s also a mentor to others. He’s gone on record in many interviews saying that he is often approached by young aspirants, and is clear about his expectations for anyone who wants to work their way into the kind of career he’s had.
First, regardless of whether they’ve been to film school, he advises them to take an entry-level position at a post-production or editorial house and to learn everything they can about how to use the equipment. Knowing how to use Avid, how to manage EDLs, what the difference is between a RED camera setup and an ALEXA camera file format. That’s all at the fundamental level.
On top of that, anyone who wants to be an editor has to learn about the art of storytelling. Obviously, working with experienced editors is one way of learning, but Eddie also cites several books as required reading. The 21st Century Screenplay by Linda Aronson, Ed Catmull’s Creativity, Inc., and Into the Woods: A Five Act Journey Into Story by John Yorke (which he claims to reread frequently) are three of his favorites.
Then comes work ethic. Pay attention to the details.
Double check your work. Learn from your mistakes and don’t repeat them. Be trustworthy and reliable. Turn up early and leave only after you’re sure that everything has been completed accurately and thoroughly.
“You need to start at the bottom and prove that you’re willing to do any task, however menial, with a smile on your face.”
“Some people have the right attitude and are just excited to be a part of the process, and those are the ones who get noticed.”
Working on huge, high-pressure projects is an exercise in intensity, focus, stamina, and professionalism. Eddie’s been doing it for twenty years and when asked how he manages to keep doing it, he says, “I love what I do and never take it for granted. Every day that I’m traveling in to work, I remind myself how fortunate I am to be on a film like this with such incredibly gifted collaborators.”
So, in answer to the question of whether you have to work like Eddie Hamilton if you want to work with Eddie Hamilton—or the other pros at the top of the business?
Yes. You do.
Interview photography by John McAllister.
Bonus Interview: Equipment Used
Frame.io partnered with “Art of the Cut’s” Steve Hullfish to pull out some additional nuggets of information from Eddie.
I use a MacPro trashcan connected to a DNxIQ box, with an HDMI connection to a 65” 2160p Panasonic OLED TV. For audio I de-embed the HD-SDI audio and feed it to my digital 5.1 speaker system (Dynaudio Air 12s). A 48TB Avid Nexis provides networked storage. I also have my trusty Razer Naga gaming mouse handy at all times.
At the director’s house, I used his home iMac connected to a Thunderbolt display. I used a Thunderbolt connected AJA T-Tap for true 1080p24 output into an HDMI splitter which fed video to two 21×9 LG monitors, one for me, one for McQ.
The audio was stereo only, de-embedded from the HDMI signal, connected to two bookcase-size Cambridge Audio monitors. Media Composer preserves all the 5.1 panning from your timeline and downmixes to stereo on the fly. For storage, I used a 32TB G-Speed Q drive, plus two 4TB Lacie rugged drives all connected to a USB3 hub (the entire project and all media were around 40TB).
For a really portable setup on the road, I used a 15” MacBook Pro with an AJA-Tap, terrific portable stereo speakers make by IK Multimedia called iLoud Micro Monitors (they kick out a surprisingly beefy sound for something so small), and the same G-Speed / Lacie drives described above. Plus a great app called Duet which allows you to connect any iPad to your MacBook and use it as a second monitor.
You can read Steve’s full interview with Eddie here.